A story’s threads

The role of costume design

Costume sketches by Elizabeth Bolster for Elm Shakespeare Company's 2011 production of the Bard's "Measure for Measure." Images courtesy of the artist.

Costume sketches by Elizabeth Bolster for Elm Shakespeare Company’s 2011 production of the Bard’s “Measure for Measure.” Images courtesy of the artist.


David Brensilver

The folks who dress actors for stage, television, and film roles are responsible for more than a production’s aesthetic.

“We facilitate the storytelling,” Cathy Mason, a costume design assistant at Long Wharf Theatre said during a conversation about the company’s recent production of William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, which is set during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.

The actors’ attire was based entirely on costume designer (and Yale School of Drama faculty member) Jess Goldstein’s research and either “built” or “shopped,” Mason said.

Given the time period in which Ride the Tiger takes place, Goldstein, Mason, and the production’s creative team were able to take advantage of fashions made popular in large part by the designs seen on the AMC television series Mad Men, which is set in 1960s New York.

So popular, in fact, is that period look, that Banana Republic worked with Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant to produce a Mad Men Collection.

The intersection of contemporary and period-appropriate is a familiar area to Mason and her colleagues.

“Often, period shapes are such that our modern eyes aren’t used to them,” Mason said, explaining that the two are frequently blended to avoid distraction.

Such was the case with the costumes for Ride the Tiger.

“We want our characters to … look well put together, to look good,” Mason said.
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Speaking in her capacity as the Elm Shakespeare Company’s costume designer, Elizabeth Bolster (who works as the Yale Repertory Theatre’s wardrobe supervisor) said in an e-mail that, “For me, blending modern and period clothing is more about being cost effective. There are plenty of places … to rent period clothing but even a good deal on a rental isn’t going to beat a $3 pair of pants from Goodwill. Fortunately a lot of fashion silhouettes and trends have repeated themselves over the years and make a blended show pleasing to the eye.”

Bolster also pays attention to what’s happening in contemporary culture.

“In working with Elm Shakespeare,” she said, “(Artistic Director) Jim Andreassi and I typically talk film and TV. Often it’s just whatever art is influencing you in your life in that moment. After seeing the Alexander McQueen show at The Met, Elm’s production of Measure for Measure was very influenced by that aesthetic, though ultimately it ended up more steampunk than high fashion.”

Costume designers can add character elements that an actor might not have been aware of – that is, a designer is responsible for developing “a portion of a character,” said John Carver Sullivan, chairman of Southern Connecticut State University’s theater department.

Sullivan, who’s designed costumes for numerous organizations and productions including those staged by the Yale Opera, talked about the importance of considering socio-economics as much as a character’s gender, ethnicity, and occupation.

Still, Sullivan said, the “overriding force is the mood and spirit of the character.” Consideration must be given to the “arc of the costumes, as well as the arc of the performance.”

And every production needs to be approached from a fresh perspective.

“Every time we start,” Sullivan said, “we say, ‘We begin with a blank page.’”

As important as a playwright, director, and actors are to a production, Sullivan pointed to the critical role each member of a creative team plays, from the lighting designer to the composer who provides the score.

Costume sketch by Jacy Barber for A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s upcoming production of Freewheelers. Image courtesy of the artist/A Broken Umbrella Theatre.

Costume sketch by Jacy Barber for A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s upcoming production of Freewheelers. Image courtesy of the artist/A Broken Umbrella Theatre.


Next month, the Westville-based company A Broken Umbrella Theatre will stage Freewheelers, which, as described in a December 5, 2012, story in the New Haven Independent, “will explore the relationship between the establishment, in 1866, of New Haven’s first corset factory and the patent Frenchman-turned-New Havener Pierre Lallement secured that same year for the modern-day bicycle.”

Costumes for Freewheelers are being designed by Jacy Barber, who’s been participating in production-related workshops with A Broken Umbrella Theatre producer Rachel Alderman and other ensemble members.

Those workshops yielded the Freewheelers Gallery, a work-specific creative exercise that was opened up to the public in the theater company’s Westville warehouse space.

Barber, who’s designed costumes for several of A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s previous productions and recently relocated to Washington, D.C., where she and her husband, writer and lighting designer Jason Wells, founded the Not a Robot Theatre Company, said that the Freewheelers Gallery represented the “seeds of what you’re going to see on stage … in terms of design.”

The Freewheelers Gallery allowed Barber and her colleagues to explore the play’s color scheme and to discover themes that will inform the stage production itself.

Of her costume designs for Freewheelers, Barber said, “I’m not doing a literal translation of period costumes,” an approach that is consistent with the work she’s done for A Broken Umbrella Theatre.

Barber said she tends to reference periods but also to include elements that reflect “contemporary culture and what I perceive to be a common cultural language.”

And that, along with the above-mentioned comments of Mason, Bolster, and Sullivan, reflects a commitment to storytelling as practiced by all those who work together behind the scenes to produce works for the stage or screen.

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One comment

  1. Brilliant post – will definatly be linking to this on my blog!

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